When a couple of newspaper paragraphs announced the death of Russian dance great Maya Plisetskaya,
my mind whipped back a lifetime to a black and white portrait by the US photographer Richard Avedon of a beautiful woman wearing an improbable feathered headdress and a big grin. She was famously strong of body and thus technique, and had red hair.
I hope she dances among the clouds forever.
Ballet inspired me by being quite apart from what I was.
I did not come to dance wanting to be a dancer or thinking to look terrific in a tutu – I was too skinny and dreamy, not nearly driven enough.
I came to ballet through pictures.
The midwife was a man professionally called Baron, famous for photographing ballet but I didn’t know that when (aged 12) I picked up his book. Several images have stayed with me to date, and one of them was Tamara Karsavina, trained at the Imperial Russian School, who danced with Nijinsky in the Ballet Russes, for whom Stravinsky’s The Firebird was created and who later in life helped to codify teaching at what became the UK’s Royal Ballet.
In a series on famous people for the BBC, I chose her life and I remember being asked very gently by the presenter Matthew Parris, had I seen her dance ?
Had I seen film of her ?
Then what …. ?
So I explained that I was born in the industrial north east of England at the end of WWII. I was bullied because I didn’t look right and because neither of my parents were local, I didn’t sound right either. I had tried to “belong” but my nose was never going to be straight nor my hair curly and then one day in the school library I found this book. Of course I understand how egocentric this sounds: there were others who didn’t fit in but I was only worried about myself. Recognition is another kind of discovery. I could not be a dancer but I could be inspired by it.
Dancers have the bodies of athletes or gymnasts but they have to have profound musicality and the ability to act. Through one of the most stylised and gruelling disciplines they offer the illusion of weightlessness – they become what they are not.
In a ballet that doesn’t appeal to you, there is a lot of leaping about and looking soulful in unfortunate costumes.
In a ballet you respond to, you are taken to another world, exciting, beautiful, moving.
And there are different ways to dance – not just different schools of dance but people who use dance in other ways. They change the movement or the music, they draw on thousands of years of temple dancing, when movement was part of religious rite.
It becomes marching, or tumbling. You can dance in war, you can dance in joy.
Or you can dance through notes: you can have a favourite song and because of certain musical cadences, or the shape and emphasis of certain words, it will mean something special to you – it will give you voice – which is another way of dancing.
If I ever doubted that words could dance, and sometimes shamanically drive away shadows, not by banishing them but by dancing them to death so they have no more power – finding the work of the US poet Louise Gluck when I needed her most ended my disbelief.
And I have read two books above all others this year in which Plisetskaya could hold a masterclass.
Adam Nicolson wrote a book called The Mighty Dead. I thought I wouldn’t understand it because I didn’t have a classical education – but which I found in paperback, read a page, bought, read twice and was fascinated by – a kind of personal journey/saga/spell and historical who-and-why all rolled into one.
And Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, which is about words that die as the land they describe is altered and words that live because it cannot be changed as long as one person remembers, about the word as witness and how the witness dances, at the edge of a city, in the barren land, in the snow, on the sea.
Recommending books is always very personal.
You may not like the books I liked but the words danced for me. They led me off in directions I didn’t know.
I went to sleep with the sound of unknown music and woke with it drumming in my toes.